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BOOK REVIEW

Adroit Archaeoastronomer

Alexander Gurshtein

Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Clive L. N. Ruggles. xi + 288 pp. Yale University Press, 1999. $65.

Although this voluminous study contains no breathtaking revelations, it will nonetheless undoubtedly be among the unfading academic treasures of the outgoing century. At a glance, its scope seems rather restricted and exciting only for a handful of European experts, but this is not the case at all.

Archaeoastronomy—a recently born discipline that investigates prehistoric and early historic evidence of the astronomical heritage of ancient peoples throughout the world—began to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s owing largely to the analysis of astronomical alignments in many parts of prehistoric Britain as well as in neighboring Brittany and Ireland. For some reason, hundreds of archaic monuments survived in this vast region not only through the period of Roman occupation and the Middle Ages but even during the Industrial Revolution and onward. For years British scholars contributed to this specific research area. Among them were such prolific writers as Sir Norman Lockyer with his Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered (1906), Gerald S. Hawkins with his Stonehenge Decoded (1966), Alexander Thom with his Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967) and the great astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle with his On Stonehenge (1977), to name a few.

Years of intensive deliberation, unfortunately, demonstrated that no single disciplinary approach could lead to clear-cut, indisputable conclusions. So from the very beginning, archaeoastronomy found itself in a stormy, long-standing conflict where the humanities meet science. Moreover, the discipline sometimes required the use of complex mathematical, particularly statistical, methods. It was hard to find an expert capable of properly covering all of these distinct areas simultaneously. The situation was further complicated by differences in archaeological evidence in different parts of the world; it can be very confusing for those familiar with European archaeology to work with materials, for instance, in Asia or the Yucatán.

For these reasons, Clive Ruggles has deliberately limited his perspective to Britain and Ireland, although he includes a great variety of subject matter about both archaeology and astronomy. This British author upholds the best traditions of his forerunners and successfully sums up their efforts of the early "heroic" period of modern European archaeoastronomy. He examines not only pure facts but also some general multidisciplinary interpretative problems and even methodologies.

The book contains no color illustrations, nor are its pages dominated by photographs. It is, however, a rich repository of factual information—maps, sketches and various numerical tables—that reflect in particular the author's own fieldwork. Remarkably, Ruggles does not demand that the reader possess an in-depth background; on the contrary, his book will be comprehensible to a broad audience, not just specialists. It is skillfully organized, with 23 boxes providing background information in archaeology, astronomy and statistics, and there is an appendix on field techniques. One especially stimulating part of the book presents the author's vision for future research.

Of course, Ruggles does not cover the full extent of contemporary archaeoastronomy, but he does address more general cognitive and methodological problems and in so doing cites a wide range of case studies, especially from indigenous and pre-Columbian America.

All that remains is to compliment the author, who for several decades has played a central role in the development of archaeoastronomy as a discipline, and Yale University Press on a splendid treatise that is not destined to get dusty on bookshelves.—Alexander Gurshtein, Astronomy, Space Research and History of Science, Mesa State College, Colorado

 

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